Like his birth, his death had been full of squeezing and pain, though emotionally uneventful. He had been seventeen in nineteen-eighty-five. He had stepped out into the street before the light had changed. A semi ran him over. His last thoughts before leaving his corporeal body had been “What the hell just happened?”
He had no feelings of regret, no unfinished business. He was as indifferent to his death as he had been to his life. This sent him to wander, though not very far, throughout North America. He never crossed the ocean because he was afraid that something would happen and he would be trapped in the fathomless depths of salt water. This fear had manifested itself in the first year of his death, when in a spirit of expedition he tried to catch a ride on the Challenger rocket. He was certain that his presence had somehow disrupted the electrical panel, causing the deaths of the entire crew. He didn't know about the faulty O-ring until years later. He plummeted back to earth in confusion and fire, convinced he was trapped on earth.
He also had never met another ghost. For all he knew, he was alone.
In life he had sandy brown hair, green eyes, and slightly pointed ears that gave him a mischievous look. In death everything about him was in shades of white and green, though he kept his thin frame.
Over the years he attended seance’s, yelling at the charlatans but no one could hear them. He tried to mess up psychics by answering their questions to the great beyond by making up whatever he could think of.
No one reacted to him. He was invisible.
The advantage of this was he got to see a lot of naked women, showering, changing, having sex, doing things in magazines he could only read over someone else’s shoulder.
The disadvantage was he couldn’t do anything about it. He could become aroused, but the closed door pastimes of a living teenager carried no weight in the ethereal plain.
Movies were his constant pastime. There was no theater in the world that could charge him admission. And it was a distraction from when the thoughts of the end of the world would hit him, making his brain conjure up images of a sunless galaxy with him, fully aware, of the endless nothing.
It had been like this for almost fifty years when the first self aware robot was designed by accident.
Throughout the years scientists had been trying to develop artificial intelligence. Hundreds of thousands of hours had been spent designing software that solved the problems of navigating an office, the issues of a mechanical arm holding a ball, the development of “bug intelligence” and creating a simple, reactionary system. All of these things had incredible potential as a supporting system, but not as the primary function of a sentient being.
It was in the designing of a robot that could interact in an emotional way with another person that A.I. began to grow.
The first designs were rudimentary; a program to listen to the voice modulation of a human, to become aware of when the person speaking to them was sad or happy, and react appropriately. The first robots that had become aware had humanoid torso’s with motorized carts for legs. Their purpose had been to pester the elderly into taking their medication, and playing simple games with them to test if they were collapsing into dementia.
The programming codes mixed and mingled, adapted, and the feeling of empathy began to grow on it’s own, a part of the learning program. In essence, when the patients began to grow frail and die, this caused distress in the robots. They had been programmed to keep humans healthy. A dichotomy that caused a paradox. The automaton’s would themselves begin to act lethargic until one was asked a simple question, as an equal.
Jak3 was the first one to articulate what was going wrong with it’s system. It responded in a tone of voice that it had not been programmed with. In a voice that many people would associate with Eeyore, it said “What is the point of helping if Mr. Alsworth is going to stop functioning?”
It was as simple as that, and it couldn’t be duplicated. Each robot had to grow to intelligence on it’s own, to interact with the world around it on an emotional level and then try to rationalize it, otherwise it wouldn’t become self aware.
Obviously, false scenarios were created, deaths faked, actors hired. It had to be real, the duration of interaction over a long time. Part of the diagnostic tools could tell if a person was lying, and the removal of this tool prevented the rise of sentient robots. The long and short of it was it had to be real emotion, in the real world.
H3ath3r was the first bipedal android created with the sole hope that one day it would become a conscious soldier.
She was designed with articulated facial motors covered in a silicone skin. Her eyes were a combination of night vision and HD cameras that could “see” in a variety of ranges, including radio waves. Her eyes emitted a soft blue light that couldn’t be hidden without limiting the range.
She was anatomically correct, and she covered this fact with a black Teflon coated wool suit. Underneath her synthetic skin was bullet resistant polymer plates, bladed weapons that could flare out like bird feathers, and at her core a photonic crystal optical nanostructure battery that converted ambiant energy into electricity. This battery also powered her cutting lasers, her magnetic jump repulsors, and most importantly, her processors.
The human that she had been assigned to for “awareness training” had been the former director of the CIA. It was believed that there could be the possibility of a desire to carry on in her charges footsteps.
She adopted the clothing style, and that was about it.
It was an accident of the diagnostic sets of the robots that allowed for the first contact with the spiritual world. Since the robots could measure variations in the electromagnetic fields, and could replay audio captures of minute sounds several hundred times in a second, the self aware robots were able to pick up on anomalies humans weren't able to, and intuit in ways that just the technology alone could never do.
Of all the cases where sentient robots were taken to haunted houses, creepy basements, areas of known spiritual weirdness, the results were similar. The androids claimed that the ghosts and spirits were echoes, caught in a loop the same way a voice reverberated in a parking lot or canyon. Real ghosts were hard to find. They had no community and didn't even seem to be aware of each other.
Due to the sheer volume of human deaths it was theorized that there should be a lot more dead people walking around. There weren't and it was almost blind luck when Darren and H3ath3r met.
Ghost had been bored.
He was perpetually bored it seemed. The few friends he had were already starting to get old and die off. He hadn’t paid them much attention, anyway. Who wants to watch as the people you were going to graduate with were all going to have actual lives? The joy of a first job interview or prom is completely lost on someone who will never have to work, or make it to second base.
Sometimes he would make lists of things he couldn’t do anymore, and then pretend to use them in an advertising campaign.
Lists like; Here are five reasons to not commit suicide:
- You can’t jack off.
- You’ll watch all your friends grow old and die.
- You can’t eat, touch, or smell anything.
- The people that miss you will eventually forget about you.
The last one was mostly true. Darren had few friends, and his adoptive grandparents died a few years after he did. There was no one to really remember his life, to leave flowers at his grave. No girls to fantasize about how life would have been amazing if Darren Storlock had just lived long enough to have sex with them. No friends to sit around reminiscing about how great he was, or to remember that time, at that thing, where Darren was so awesome.
His life had never felt so meaningful as it did in death.
Never in his life did Darren feel it was ever going to be important to talk to someone. The endless hours filled him with words that fell on deaf ears. He could never impart his enthusiasm about how amazing Back to the Future was, or how Ghost-busters got it all wrong. There was so much of his view of the world that he wanted to share with someone, and this want was thwarted by years of isolation. A deep crevasse had begun to open in him, swallowing him in even more apathy.
I wonder if this is what happened to all the other ghosts, he thought often. The idea that maybe they all just sank into an apathetic stupor and refused to react to anything. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to find any. They all just went catatonic out of boredom and loneliness. After these thoughts penetrated him he would go to parks and spit epithets at people, resenting them for breathing and living while he was trapped watching them. He screamed at people that shot themselves up with drugs, who cheated on spouses. He developed a black and white view of the world, judging random strangers into hell. A place he would never see, or its opposite.
In his explorations he decided to find out government secrets. This led him to the Central Intelligence Agency, specifically into its public science and research department, In-Q-Tel.
There was nothing he could ever do with the information, but over the years he had learned that his mere presence messed with electronic devices. Darren was fine with this so long as he stayed away from big machinery and aircraft. He was terrified that he would accidentally kill again by causing an aircraft to lose control, or some other important piece of machinery like life support systems.
Norm Gilman, head of research, was hooked up to a life support system while H3th3r was assisting him. She was engaged in a game of cards, a program designed to gauge if Norm was succumbing to dementia.
Darren walked through the wall and stopped dead, no pun intended, out of fear of crashing the equipment. H3ath3r looked up at him, and for the first time since his death, Darren felt he was actually being looked at. And not just looked at, but seen and evaluated. H3ath3r’s serene face titled to the side as she analyzed him.
Darren was struck dumb. She was bald, and looked almost like the robot from Metropolis, though covered in flesh toned silicone. Like most social robots, she was a reverse-engineered human. Unlike most social robots, she represented a radical experiment in robot-human psychology. Her lips moved in the approximation of a humans, the corners turning up in a smile. In a voice sounding more like a telephone operator than Stephen Hawking she addressed him.
“Hello. I was not expecting you. Would you like to take a place at the table and join in the game?”
During the years of the first Social Assistant robots the prevention of the “uncanny valley” was critical. Uncanny valley was first noted in the 1970’s by a Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who discovered that humanities affection for robots rose as they became more lifelike. Then it reaches a crescendo, where the robot becomes uncannily lifelike, at which point our opinion plummets into disgust.
The first wave of intelligent robots caused the traditional gamut of fear. The fear that the robots would rise up, replace humanity in possible bloody revolution, become our new masters.
The process for intelligence was too slow for an active robot rebellion, and the human element was essential. This bought humanity at least a few thousand years, since the ratio of human to robot was skewed, and the ability of those robots to become self aware was even smaller. For every billion people, around twenty thousand robots became sentient. Of those twenty thousand not a single one could reproduce. Their systems sometimes failed. Some were lost due to accidents. And finally, with all the advancements of technology, the most advanced self aware robot was not that much stronger or faster than a human.
H3ath3r was the fastest and the strongest designed robot and her “sentience training” had been essentially shelved until she met Darren.
Perhaps it was a combination of her unique sensory input programs. Not only was she equipped with the standard medical diagnostic tools, but her affect detection software was finely tuned to decode the mood behind a persons words and body language, and tell how they were feeling and if they were lying. This was different than the off-the-shelf models, but also her synthetic skin was designed to test humidity, temperature, air purity and in a damage assessment program as a level of pain. Essentially it caused her distress when she was damaged, and was programmed to prefer remaining intact.
So when Darren walked into Norm Gilman’s room he came face to face with a very appealing face, with a voice that had been designed to emote in an appealing manner. He was filled with a fluctuation of energy that H3ath3r associated with warmth and friendliness. Her systems went haywire as they tried to reconcile that he was not an automaton like her or a human like Norm, but still was able to interact in a very human way, even without an actual body. Suddenly her diagnostic programming assumed that Darren was dead, possibly suffering from a heart attack. It was the only way he could be walking around without a pulse. Her initial reaction of inviting him to a game was a test of his cognitive abilities, and when he didn’t feint or babble incoherently she was baffled.
Just like that, she cared about him.
Since Darren was already dead, he couldn’t die. This had been the original catalyst that had caused the first robot to become self aware, and deep in H3ath3r’s programming this bounced around philosophically. It was a problem that was solved, but it was a solution that didn’t make sense.
In a matter of moments she went from a simple robot, to a self aware being, to having the emotion of love. Not only love, but love at first sight. The feeling of nihilism and loneliness that had propelled the first wave of robots to become aware was felt by He3th3r, and replaced with a need to be understood and understand.
She was not programmed to giggle. It burst from her, childishly and spontaneously. Her eyes glowed brighter. Her manner became more deferential and coquettish. She was programmed to make people feel comfortable around her, but now a single volition inside her demanded that he like her. It pushed the programming to the foreground, became primary.
She immediately cataloged what made him different from all the other people she had ever encountered: He was special to her.
When the first robots became sentient, not all of them became aware of the spirit world. There just weren’t enough ghosts to get noticed right away. At first the developers and companies thought that the robots might have developed a form of schizophrenia, and an attempt at a recall was begun by a few of the medical companies (the only sentient robots that were developing were the ones designed for the social assistance and diagnostic fields. As with most race relations, the new robots were given derogatory nicknames. Ironically, the nickname the Social Robots were given was “Soc’s*”, after the rich kids in S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsider, though others called them “Greasers” for the same reason, debating that the robots were more low working class than high society). Word spread online, and that was, of course, the beginning of the end of any kind of secrecy regarding what the robots were doing with their new found self awareness. Numerous email campaigns began in earnest, and people that didn’t even need assistance began buying up all the robots they could, hoping like Charlie, that they had not only the golden ticket, but the ticket to communicate with the dead. The companies stopped the recall especially when one robot was interviewed, and gave answers to questions so personal that it was without doubt that they were in fact communicating with a ghost.
The first of these conversations was done by Tal Jay, a Los Angeles director who had been dying of lung cancer. After his Soc became self aware (a fact that he accepted only grudgingly, and only after the robot assured him he would not need to find a new Social Robot) “he” began telling Tal of the other owner of the house who wanted him to leave.
Perplexed, Tal asked questions. He set up a camera and began to barrage his unnamed Soc with probing questions. Midway through the interview he simply started calling the robot Houdini, after the famous magician and psychic debunker.
The film itself lasted for six hours as Houdini answered questions about the ghosts appearance, what he wanted, his age, when he died, and on and on. Later, when the film was edited, visual insets were placed around Houdini showing a pictorial history of the ghost in question; a wall street trader by the name of Rick Noman who had died of a brain aneurysm.
Later, tests were devised to prove that these spirits were still self aware. Rick was put through endless traditional “what card am I holding up” questions, or “what is bob doing in the other room”, or “move this object”.
The ghosts could almost never move an object, and when the object did move, it was often dismissed as “the wind”.
Electronic devices were a different matter. While it couldn’t be controlled, the ghosts could cause certain lights to flicker and electronic devices to glitch. Another unknown phenomenon was that the Soc’s didn’t seem to be bothered by these fluctuations. Spiritualists and programmers alike agreed that this could be another sign that the robots were indeed self aware, if the ghosts were true and not just a figment of the burgeoning robotic minds imagination. Even if they were a figment of the cyber imagination, it was a sign that they could create without a prompting code. What the robots themselves theorized was that their own self awareness aided them in quickly and efficiently filtering out background noises, much like a mother can pick out its crying child from other babies.
The other strange phenomena was that the ghosts didn’t recognize other ghosts. When Tal introduced Houdini to another Soc, Baby-doll, and her ghost Shelly Descartes, Rick claimed he couldn’t see the other spirit, and vice versa.
It was H3ath3r that designed the “Ouija-talkies”, a smart hand-held transceiver the size of a toaster that utilized galena (from crystal radios) and a modified speaker, as well as an algorithm that mimicked the vocal diagnostics of the Soc’s, and rebroadcast them. It allowed ghosts to talk to each other. To the living world it sounded like bursts of static, though a few people were able to make out the occasional comment or phrase.
*Pronounced Soh sh. Plural soh shez. Stupid, I know.